Being the tree: Emotional OE is my superpower

I confess: I’ve already fallen off the shower bus.

It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t be arsed; I just kinda forgot showers were a thing. Sure, in the middle of summer here in the sub-tropics, you’d think showers were THE thing, but apparently there’s nothing that can’t slip off the list, if enough other things come along. And I’m so fucking tired.

I mean, it did kinda bother me that I’m this tired, when ‘all’ I do is a bit of homeschool (irregularly; badly), a bit of housework (ditto), and look after Mum three or four times a week. Many women do far more. Heck, my sister keeps in close touch with her adult children, keeps house immaculately, does Mum’s shopping, cooking, medicals, and spends more time with her, as well as working. SHE showers.

Of course, I also have a hefty mental load. Even with our slapdash approach to schooling, someone is always in my ear, talking about cow snake morphs, rapping, or wanting to start a blog. That occupies bandwidth along with figuring out what’s for dinner every night and making sure we have ingredients, knowing what time their piano lesson is, remembering when school holidays are, and that the cat’s nearly out of food.

But that’s still, all kind of normal, right? It’s what women do, otherwise there wouldn’t be articles like this. And this. And, this.

But that last piece did something that bugged me, that you often see in stories about invisible labour: ignoring (or ignorant of) the term’s origins, Hartley uses ‘emotional labour’ to describe the process of finding a cleaner.

Which, okay, it can be, especially if you’re ADHD, socially anxious, bone-sappingly tired, or ashamed of needing someone else to clean your house. She wasn’t talking about that, though. In fact she wasn’t talking at all about what I think of as emotional labour, which is the heavy lifting you do all day, every day, when someone, or everyone, in the house, has emotional over-excitability.

The flare of excitement today when we saw our first Red Triangle slug in the gutter where we’d parked; the urgency of looking it up. So big! So white! Such strange markings!

The huge tension when we tried (and failed) to rescue the slug, because left there the poor thing wasn’t safe.

The several reassurances that I’d back up to leave, rather than drive forward and ‘murder’ the slug.

The processing, afterwards. Curiosity, made-up explanatory stories, worry.

For everything, all the time.

So Nana’s diabetes diagnosis isn’t just about the extra mental load of figuring out her new diet; it’s also conversations about death and care and making the most of the time we have left, when I’d really rather hide in my room, processing alone.

Getting someone to do some math is not just about figuring out what they have to do and finding resources; it’s also about coaching them through the anxiety about doing it and, simultaneously, the anxiety about the consequences if they don’t—whilst keeping my own anxiety/frustration at bay.

Now apply that last para to teeth-brushing, housework, pet care, showers, projects, bedtime, going out, staying in, and any purchases anyone might wish to make.

A highly sensitive, highly anxious kid needing a tooth pulled? That took four months of talk, to get them through the door. FOUR MONTHS. And then two days’ processing afterwards.

Calmly identifying sources of conflict, coaching people to communicate their needs respectfully, translating offenses taken, accusations, or refusals for those whose words fail them – when it’s been TWELVE YEARS, dear gods why are we not there already?! – that’s emotional labour.

Keeping an eye out for the quicksand, negotiating around it, or being the tree someone grabs onto to haul themselves out – that’s emotional labour.

Holding myself firm in this moment, wilfully forgetting what should happen, or could happen based on what did happen last week, or, god forbid, what I WANT to happen, and above all, not losing my shit when it’s midnight and we’ve been at it for two hours already – THAT’S emotional labour.

That is what I do all day, and that is why I am so fucking tired.

(Rather wonderfully, when I messaged Dr Christiane Wells to ensure I understood emotional over-excitability, she replied, “Dabrowski wrote about fatigue as associated with having OE, and that’s something that’s not well-known – it’s something you see in his early work in Polish. Being ‘emotionally exhausted’ is something that happens in people with emotional OE.”)

So that’s it: a solid, bona-fide reason for this thumping, colossal, astronomical fatigue, because this work is not optional. It’s constant, it’s exhausting, and while I’m no master, I am – yeah. I’m gonna say it: I’m actually, pretty bloody good at it.

The nice thing is, if you’ve read this far and you have any inkling what I’m on about – any inkling whatsoever? Then you’re good at it, too.


It’s a cliche, I know. I just can’t think of any other word to capture the intensity, the speed of highs and lows, that we have fielded this week:

On Sunday, Grandpa reveals that he has lung cancer; it is operable so at some point in the next month or so, they’ll take him in and remove the offending lobe. Dread.

Monday: I finally post on the writers’ group I’ve been following for several months. I say, I’ve written a piece I think I might like to publish, does anyone have any suggestions? Brave!

When a commissioning editor expresses interest, I fight a strong urge to change my name, leave the group, go hide under the duvet and instead send her an excerpt. Scared!

CraftyFish’s Guide group goes for a fast-food meal at a place she’s never been before, followed by a toad-busting walk in the dark; she is terrified and then – having survived and had a great time with her friends – ecstatic.

Tuesday: I have a long text chat with someone else who’d commented on my post, saying ‘hello’ as a fellow home-schooling mum of intense kids. Funny, bright, wry woman who writes poetry. Lovely!

I get into the garden and build an entire raised bed. I end up covered in dirt and mulch that are stuck in the sweat. Satisfied. And proud.

The Sceptic comes home and announces that ‘some time in the next month or so’ for Grandpa’s surgery has been bumped to ‘tomorrow’; he has to be there at 05:30 and is first cab off the rank. Scared.

That night an argument with Mr Pixel (who refuses to do chores) bangs into something I read a while ago, flinging me down the rabbit-hole of wondering whether he might be ADD. Only two or three indicators that fit, but BOY, do they fit. I mention one of them to him and he looks at me, wide-eyed. “That – that’s me!” Hmm. I’ve never wondered that before; now I am wondering hard.

Wednesday: a landscaper comes to go over my proposed garden projects with a more practical brain and a knowledge of costs. Engaging! Thought-provoking. Also a little scary – it’s so grown-up of me to ask for help.

We spend some time with Mum. Bittersweet.

Grandpa finally has his surgery late in the afternoon; The Sceptic goes to visit. Relief. And some anxiety.

I spend hours searching for rain-water tanks to fit the garden and looking up psychologists to test the kids for giftedness, ADD/ADHD (I’ve long thought CraftyFish might be the latter), and the anxiety/depression scales, since they both show plenty of signs there, too. Beyond frustrating. There is so much available for autism-spectrum conditions now; so little for plain old giftedness, let alone combined with anything else. I cannot find one single person using the term ‘2e’. Is there any point dealing with someone who doesn’t get it?

Thursday: Estimates come in: water tanks $830 plus installation plus the base for them to stand on. Landscaping projects: $2000, if we do a fair bit of the labour ourselves. Psychological evaluations: $2700. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Commissioning editor admits my piece isn’t what she’s looking for. Ouch. The Sceptic reports his dad is looking better but still has tubes everywhere, so we’ll just hang on to that anxiety for a while.

Friday: I send piece to someone else. Scared again.

CraftyFish burns her fingertips with hot glue. After 20 minutes under tap water she is pale and her knees won’t hold her up, she is so scared and pained. Our GP’s hold message informs me they will answer in 15 minutes (rage!) so I take her somewhere else; wonderful doctor explains why the pain is a good sign; a nurse dresses her fingers (relief); Mr Pixel makes her laugh all the way home (gratitude). After lunch we go out for groceries. Tedium. Thinking. Ugh. On the way home we drop CraftyFish to a friend’s. She’s so happy! We get home and Mr Pixel – oh, my poor, sweet boy – Mr Pixel discovers that the guinea pigs are dead.

Pet deaths are so hard. Add emotional over-excitability into the mix and – well. Multiply however bad you’re imagining it by about 150%. Bedtime is horrendous. That’s okay. I can hold all the space they need. I am so strong.

Saturday: I wake at four. So. Much. To process. We spend the day hiding, the kids on their screens, eating like invalids, me baking like a madwoman. Late afternoon we visit Grandpa in hospital. He’s looking better than we’d hoped. A degree of calm.

Bedtime is easier but as Mr Pixel is dozing off the sounds of drunken belligerence disturb our peace. The drunks choose our yard for their last stand. We are ready to call the police when squad cars begin arriving, lights flashing. Three cars, cops all over the road. The drunks quickly lose their belligerence and wait quietly for friends to come. Way too much excitement at 11pm. Mr Pixel is rigid with tension and fatigue. I stroke him to sleep.

Sunday: Exhausted. I am having my writing time, my two hours off for a week’s good behaviour. On my way home I will pick up some lunch treats and … nope. Can’t remember the other thing. CraftyFish wants me to buy her a black sequinned hat for the funeral. (It is essential to look the part.) And then, I think, I might see if anyone wants to go to the beach. We need it.